Written as an exercise for the Hidden Meanings – Creative Non-Fiction IWP course. Prompt was to write about something that I used to believe to be true (about myself) and now see myself differently.
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Traveling through the world as a kid had made me extremely flexible and resilient in both mind and action. I arrived at the Tel Aviv Marina at a precocious age 14, having lived a year in an Anglican girls boarding school in New Zealand. I’d learned to ride horses, though still afraid of them, and play hockey, though my shins would beg otherwise.
I’d already fallen in love once and been kissed by boys twice. I learned, within a short while to ignore the Israeli boys who asked me ‘What time is it?’ as a pickup line, and I’d managed to gain enough Hebrew language skills to join the Israeli kids rather than stay in the New Immigrant class within a year. When WIZO visitors came to our school, the headmaster chose me to give them the ‘grand tour’ and later, when I was inducted into obligatory military duty, I was quickly promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
Though my home life was far from ideal, with my dad constantly shouting at us, and my mom retaliating with the silent treatment, I managed to keep myself calm and collected most of the time.
I graduated university with a double degree in Political Science and English Literature and got a job at the Foreign Press Office right out of school. After a short study break, I completed an MBA at Tel Aviv University and landed a good job as a Marketing Director in a software company. I got married before I turned 30, and had my first child a year later.
It was a rainy cold summer when I arrived in the Netherlands, for what was supposed to be a three-year stay. My husband’s job had sent us there, with a generous expat package that included a container to move our furniture, a housing rental budget, and fully paid tuition at the exclusive International School of Amsterdam for our children. To say that our living standard had been upgraded would be an understatement. I would soon be hobnobbing with wealthy Japanese expats, a Dutch family whose husband worked as a stuntman in Hollywood and the like. I was a few months away from befriending Yael who would become one of my dearest friends – always ready to ask me the right questions at the right time.
But before all that would happen, there was a short period of time, when school hadn’t started yet, our container had not yet arrived and the rain would not let up. My husband was off on one of his many business trips, as he’d always done, even when we had needed him at home, and my two kids, aged 4 and almost 1 depended totally on me.
I bundled them up in winter coats and boots, frustrated that in June, I’d have to do this. It was a Monday, and the whole week stretched in front of me like eternity.
“Let’s go get some lunch,” I faked enthusiasm, stepped out of our cramped family room at the hotel, pushing the stroller into the claustrophobic elevator and holding my daughter’s cold hand.
“Where can I get some lunch?” I asked the receptionist, when he finally looked up from the computer.
“Over there,” he waved vaguely, and I, being confident that a new country was always an exciting challenge, pushed open the heavy door, while maneuvering Naomi out in front of me and trying not to notice that Yoav was already fidgeting in his stroller.
We walked down the street, passing a car dealership, some industrial-like buildings, a bank that appeared to be closed and several row houses with curtains wide open, displaying tulips and lilies in tall pristine vases. A shopping street, this was not. I didn’t have a car yet, and my husband had taken the company car to Brussels. It would be a short overnighter, so I should be glad he’d be back the next evening.
I continued down the sidewalk, noticing that I could see my breath as I breathed out, and that the kids’ noses were runny. I tucked a blanket around Yoav’s legs, but he soon kicked it off and in doing so, the pacifier fell to the ground. I sucked it clean, and handed it back, before he’d start howling, glad that Naomi used her thumb and that would never get lost.
It seemed like we’d been walking an awfully long time when we eventually got to a bakery. I navigated the stroller up the three steps, but it was crowded inside so I brought it back down, picked up the baby and reentered the store. Hands full, I looked around. Square loaves of bread covered the shelves, behind the counter, with signs in Dutch explaining what they were and several sugary looking cakes were displayed in the vitrine. Everyone was waiting quietly to be served. I waited too, until an older woman gestured towards the digital number board above the cash register. I looked around and found a ticket dispenser, though several people had definitely entered before me.
It was finally my turn, and I asked, “Can you make a sandwich for the kids? For lunch?” My question was met with a scowl and the baker answered curtly, “No sandwich; not a café. Only bread.”
“Oh,” I replied, at a total loss.
Back at home, in Israel, people had always gone out of their way to feed my kids. Even strangers in a park would share their snacks, whether you wanted them to or not. And sometimes it would go too far, like when they suggested your baby might be hot in that jumpsuit, or too cold without socks on.
And I also wasn’t yet used to what it has taken me years of trial and error to perfect. The art of asking the right question. I’d asked for something specific, which was not available. So, they didn’t beat about the bush telling me that this was not possible. If I’d asked where I could get a sandwich, then perhaps I would have gotten a different response. But standing there, with two hungry kids in tow, brought me no assistance from these strangers.
I left the store empty-handed, and hungry. As I walked out, and settled Yoav back into his stroller, an older man pointed me towards the butcher, down the street. I walked there briskly, but needn’t have rushed. The sign on the door read clearly: Opening time: Monday: 12:00 – 18:00, and it was only just past 10:00.
Luckily, there was a little bench just across the street, and I sat down, trying hard not to let the kids see me wipe away a tear.